Portuguese hospitals under pressure as COVID-19 cases reach record

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the cabinets' hallway where medical workers receive the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at Santa Maria hospital in Lisbon, Portugal, December 28, 2020. REUTERS/Pedro Nunes/File Photo

LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal’s fragile health system is under growing pressure due to a worrying rise in coronavirus infections, with the country reporting 10,947 new cases and 166 deaths on Saturday, the worst surge since the pandemic started last year.

The cases, which come a day after a new lockdown was put in place, bring the total number of cases in a country of just over 10 million people to 539,416, with the death toll increasing to 8,709.

The number of infections per 100,000 people measured over the past 14 days is 901, nearly double that in hard-hit neighbouring Spain, data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control showed.

The health system, which prior to the pandemic had the lowest number of critical care beds per 100,000 inhabitants in Europe, can accommodate a maximum of 672 COVID-19 patients in ICUs, according to Health Ministry data.

There are currently 638 people in ICUs and the Portuguese Association of Hospital Administrators said the number of coronavirus patients needing hospitalisation was likely to dramatically increase over the next week.

A group of three major hospitals in Lisbon only had three intensive care beds left for coronavirus patients on Saturday morning, according to the Observador newspaper.

Media images of ambulances with coronavirus patients queuing outside hospitals in Lisbon and elsewhere as they waited for beds to vacate have raised fears the health system is close to reach its limit.

“I have received information of a patient who died inside an ambulance,” Jaime Soares, the head of the Portuguese Firefighters League, told Lusa news agency, adding hospitals are also running out of emergency stretchers.

In Porto, the country’s second biggest city, the Sao Joao hospital is already receiving “various” patients from Lisbon as hospitals in the capital struggle to cope, a spokesman said.

Reporting by Catarina Demony, editing by Louise Heavens